The Gospel of Luke records the words of Jesus in this manner: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery.” For centuries, churches have universally stood by those words of Christ and prohibited remarriages. Christians have traditionally viewed remarriage after any divorce as the sin of adultery.
In the United States, it is now legal to remarry after a divorce. It is also now legal, in the United States, for two men to marry each other. Yet, for Christians seeking to honor God with their lives, divorcing either a gay marriage or a remarriage is the right decision. God does hate divorce, but God hates the divorce of real marriages. It is vital to remember that both remarriages and gay marriages are not real marriages in the sight of God. Adultery is not the unforgivable sin, but one must not continue in adultery while claiming the name of Christ. Repentance is the divine expectation.
DID JESUS DEMAND DIVORCE?
I often get asked, “Did Jesus ever command us to divorce our remarriages?” Yes, He did. Every time Jesus identified remarriage as adultery, Jesus was demanding divorce. God, without question, expects us to terminate adultery; and divorce is the only way to terminate the adultery known as remarriage.
Why does God view remarriage after a divorce as adultery? Fundamentally, it’s because Jesus taught that the marital bond was permanent. For example, in Matthew 19:6, Jesus said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Due to the permanence of the marital bond, a divorce never actually dissolves a marriage in the sight of God. According to Christ, nothing but the death of a spouse could ever terminate a marriage. This is why a divorced person is not free to remarry–because in God’s sight, a divorced person is still truly married. Romans 7:3 goes on to warn, “So then if, while her husband lives, she is married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband dies, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she is married to another man” (Rom 7:3).
DIVORCED BUT NOT REMARRIED?
Well, what do you do if you’re divorced but not remarried? You can either stay single or return to your spouse. The Bible puts it this way: “To the married I give this command–not I, but the Lord–a wife should not divorce her husband (but if she does, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband), and a husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor 7:10-11). Remarriage is never given as a valid option because “If a woman divorces her husband, and is married to another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:12). Notice the verb tenses in that verse. A person who remains remarried continues to commit adultery throughout the tenure of that remarriage.
DIVORCED AND REMARRIED?
If you are already in the forbidden union of a remarriage, then you must swiftly divorce the remarriage. The Bible, again, provides guidance:
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife….Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” (Genesis 20:3, 7)
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. (Hebrews 13:4)
For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mark 6:17-18)
IS REMARRIAGE PERMITTED AFTER SPOUSAL INFIDELITY?
Due to Scripture’s clarity, most Christians would agree that the Bible does indeed teach that, “Divorce + Remarriage = Adultery.” Some, however, would say that while the doctrine is generally true, there is an exception for remarriage found in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. Is this true? Can a person remarry if he/she divorced a spouse due to the spouse’s sexual infidelity? No. Remarriage is prohibited by Christ—even after such divorces.
Matthew 5:32 states, “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” According to the verse, if a spouse has committed “sexual immorality” (Gk. πορνεία, see definition below), then one may divorce the guilty spouse. However, if you decide to divorce for that reason, then you would become a divorcee yourself—thus effectively precluding yourself from remarrying anyone else (remember Luke 16:18!). Jesus prohibited marriage to any divorcee by stating, “whoever marries a divorced woman (or man) commits adultery” (italics mine).
One quick additional word on Matthew 5:32. According to Jesus, if a man divorces his wife because of her infidelity, then he is not responsible for her adultery if she subsequently remarries (remember that according to Jesus, anyone who remarries commits adultery). However, if a man divorces his wife for any reason other than sexual infidelity, then he bears some of the blame for her adultery if she later remarries.
REMARRIAGE ALLOWED FOR THE ADULTERER?
Pastors, although usually well-meaning, are sometimes irrational. It is irrational to say, “After a divorce due to adultery, the innocent person may remarry but the adulterous person may not remarry.” Many pastors make this argument and it is legal fiction. If the innocent person can remarry because the divorce actually terminated the marriage, then the guilty person should also be free to remarry. Why? Because the marriage has been terminated! Otherwise, remarriage would be adultery for both. This sort of double-standard is not only illogical, it is legal fiction. It also perverts Jesus’ prohibition into becoming: “Thou shalt not marry a divorcee, except when the divorcee was divorced because of his/her sexual infidelity.” Under such logic, only adulterers may remarry. Under such logic, a desperate person simply has to commit adultery in order to legitimately divorce and remarry. This is certainly not what Jesus taught!
MATTHEW 19:9 ABRIDGES MATTHEW 5:32
Matthew 19:9 is just an abridgment of Matthew 5:32. The fact that Matthew 19:9 is just an abridgment of Matthew 5:32 is evidenced by the existence of New Testament Greek manuscripts which have the following words as part of Matthew 19:9: “except for sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (For example, please see the footnote in the English Standard Version of the Bible for Matthew 19:9.) Suddenly, the text reveals that Jesus was once again simply stating that a man who divorces for any reason other than sexual infidelity is responsible for his wife’s adultery if she later remarries. Then, by stating “whoever marries a divorced woman (or man) commits adultery,” Jesus informs us that although infidelity could be a valid reason for divorce, it most certainly is not a valid reason for remarriage.
Even without the discovery of those Greek manuscripts, one grammatical rule is helpful to remember. In New Testament Greek, and in Matthew’s writing in particular, the elliptical negated prepositional phrase, “not for fornication”, is intended as a simple limitation of the verbal action that immediately precedes it: “put away.” In other words, Jesus was making an exception for divorce but not for remarriage. According to Jesus, divorce is always prohibited–except when sexual infidelity occurs. Matthew 19:9 mirrors Matthew 5:32 by teaching that even after a divorce due to sexual infidelity, both parties may not remarry until death parts them.
AN POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVE FOR 5:32 and 19:9
Under an alternate view, both Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 might have been an exception to allow the divorce of prohibited marriages (e.g., Herod’s unlawful marriage to Herodias, or the “porneia” marriage described in 1 Corinthians 5:1–see below). Contrary to popular thought, there is no actual exception for adultery in the Matthean passages. Jesus does not use the word “adultery” (Gk., moicheia (μοιχεία)). Instead, the Greek word used is “porneia” (see definition below).
While the word “porneia” could be used to refer to adultery, it could also be a reference to a prohibited (i.e., false) marriage. Under this view, Jesus is simply teaching that divorce is prohibited except for the divorce of incestual marriages, gay marriages, remarriages or any other form of wrongful union. According to Christ, such illicit unions are not banned from divorce, but rather, they are to be swiftly divorced. As in our society today, such wrongful marriages existed during Jesus’ time, but were not the norm. Therefore, it makes sense that both the Gospels of Mark and Luke do not have any exceptions to the divorce prohibition.
Definition: The biblical Greek word porneia (πορνεία): “1. Unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication; 2. Participation in prohibited degrees of marriage, fornication; 3. Immorality of a transcendent nature, fornication” (Source: A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Ed., The University of Chicago Press, 2000).
1 Corinthians 5:1: “One should have his father’s wife.”— The word “have” here used always implies in the New Testament actual marriage. It is, therefore, probable that she had been divorced from his father. The word for “his father’s wife” is the Hebrew form of expression for stepmother. St. Chrysostom suggests “he said not his ‘stepmother,’ but ‘his father’s wife,’ so as to strike much more severely;” but probably St. Paul used the Hebrew phrase instead of the ordinary Greek word for “stepmother,” as it was in this phraseology that such a union was forbidden by the law of Moses (Leviticus 18:8). (Source: Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers.)
WHAT IF AN UNBELIEVER DIVORCES ME FIRST?
What about abandonment? Some claim that 1 Corinthians 7:15 permits a Christian to remarry if an unbeliever initiates the divorce. However, we know with certainty that no such allowance was ever made by the verse. We know with certainty because just four verses earlier, the Bible explicitly prohibited divorcees from remarrying (please read 1 Cor 7:10-11). Plainly, the biblical text does not give remarriage as an option. The divorcee has only two valid options: either remain unmarried or be reconciled.
1 Corinthians 7:15 states, “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.” The words “under bondage” represent the Greek word δεδούλωται and it is not a reference to the “marital bond.” Marriage is not bondage. It is not slavery. The apostle is not teaching that the marriage bond is broken by such divorces.
AGREEMENT AMONG EARLY CHURCH LEADERS
Many years prior to skyrocketing American divorce rates, the writings of early church leaders, for centuries, were virtually unanimous in their stance against divorce and remarriage. Here are just a few excerpts:
You must not have wives whose former husbands are living; nor may you, women, have husbands whose former wives are living. Such marriages are adulterous, not by the law of the courts, but by the law of Heaven. Nor may a woman who by divorce has withdrawn from her husband become your wife while her husband lives. Only because of fornication may one dismiss an adulterous wife; but in her lifetime you may not marry another. Neither to you, O women, is it granted to find husbands in those men whose wives have quitted them by divorce: such are adulterous, not marriages. (Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Sermon 392, c. 2.)
Because it not being lawful for her in her husband’s lifetime to contract a new marriage, sinful desire may gradually prevail against her. Suppose her to marry. The blame of the constraint she lay under is upon you: and what you account to be marriage is adultery. For what does it matter whether one commits that crime with open avowal of it, or as one who is an adulterer under the mask of a husband. Only that it is more grievous to have contrived a law to warrant crime than a secret perpetration of it. (Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Commentary on Luke 16:18, AD 340-397.)
A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another. The apostle does not promulgate this decree on his own authority but on that of Christ who speaks in him. For he has followed the words of Christ in the gospel: whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, commits adultery (Mt 5:32). Mark what he says: whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery. Whether she has put away her husband or her husband her, the man who marries her is still an adulterer. (Jerome, Letter 55, to Amandus: 3,4. AD 396.)
- Marriage (whether officiated in a church or in a court) is a permanent union that is broken only by death. As such, divorce and remarriage is adultery.
- In Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9, Christ permitted divorce due to a spouse’s sexual infidelity; but He also banned remarriage after such divorces.
- Alternatively, in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9, Christ simply might have been permitting the divorce of unlawful marriages. New Testament Greek writings demonstrate that “porneia” could mean “an unlawful marriage.”
- The apostle Paul never permitted remarriage after a divorce that was initiated by an unbeliever.
- The New Testament repeatedly identifies divorce and remarriage as adultery.
- Therefore, remarriages must be divorced.
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1Cor 6:9-10).
What God has joined together, divorce cannot separate.
What God prohibited from coming together, must always be divorced.
May God give you the grace to hear, trust, and obey.